Booted by Newmont

Former employees say it’s not a good idea to stir the dirt at the mining company

A huge haul truck looks miniscule against the backdrop of an open pit at Newmont’s Twin Creeks Mine.

A huge haul truck looks miniscule against the backdrop of an open pit at Newmont’s Twin Creeks Mine.

Photo by Deidre Pike

It’s been a year and a half, and three former employees of Newmont Mining Corp. are still looking for comparable full-time employment.

That’s not a big shock. Plenty of workers from Nevada’s mining industry have been laid off in the past several years. What’s different about Sandra and Jack Ainsworth and Rebecca Sawyer is that they say they were illegally canned after blowing the whistle on what they allege to be the company’s lax attitude toward compliance with environmental permits.

“These two women were trying to do their jobs,” said Reno attorney Henry Egghart, who’s representing the Ainsworths and Sawyer in legal actions against Newmont. “Yet the company was constantly frustrating them. There’s kind of a structure of trying to get away with as little compliance as possible.”

The former Newmont employees been actively looking for jobs across the Western United States.

They haven’t been picky.

About a year ago, Ainsworth applied for a job as groundskeeper at a golf course in Battle Mountain. It paid only $7.60 an hour, but that would have helped the couple stay in the area and make the payments on a house they’d recently purchased.

Ainsworth didn’t get the job. The couple lost their house in Battle Mountain and moved out of the area.

“There’s no other employer [in Battle Mountain],” Sawyer said during a phone conference with Ainsworth and Egghart. “Newmont owns everything. We’re putting in for every job that comes along.”

Sandra Ainsworth had worked as an environmental specialist in the mining industry for about 15 years. Complying with environmental permits from various governmental agencies was never considered optional.

“You had to meet standards or at least make serious attempts to meet them,” she said.

In 1997, she began work for Newmont, which owns or controls 3,000 acres of land in Nevada and holds reserves of 32.1 million ounces of gold in the state.

By the summer of 1999, she said she began to see evidence of disregard to environmental issues. Several instances of unaddressed environmental problems are listed the complaint filed in June by Ainsworth, her husband, Jack Ainsworth, and her co-worker Rebecca Sawyer.

When Ainsworth and Sawyer, an environmental coordinator hired by Newmont in 1999, noted that environmental conditions at Newmont’s closed Mule Canyon facility were not in compliance with an Environmental Impact Statement, the two said they were instructed not to tell the Bureau of Land Management.

Newmont denied these allegations in an 18-page answer to the workers’ complaint.

Later in 1999, Ainsworth went to her supervisor to report that Newmont wasn’t disclosing necessary information having to do with its Water Pollution Control permit. Her supervisor discussed the matter with Newmont’s environmental director for North America, John Mudge, who cautioned Ainsworth.

“Mudge gave Ainsworth a ‘chain of command’ lecture, telling that if she had any concerns about the way the environmental department was being managed, she should discuss it with environmental management,” the complaint states. “Ainsworth then voiced her concerns about the permit requirements that were not being met. Mudge told her that the relevant language in the permit was ‘boilerplate’ and was not a concern and that she was not to transmit the information to agencies (even when such disclosure was required by permits) without going though the chain of command.”

The information never reached the office of the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection, the complaint alleges.

Newmont denied the allegations.

The next summer, Ainsworth received a call from the NDEP about another matter—"acid-related staining on the surface of waste rock dumps” at Trinity, a mine in the process of closing. Ainsworth visited the site, took pictures and called the NDEP to assure inspectors that the problem areas would be covered. The problem areas were not covered. As far as Ainsworth knows, the areas are still exposed, “apparently because the defendant is unwilling to spend the money to move equipment to the location,” the suit states.

Newmont’s response was that earthwork began at the site in 1999. It denies allegations that problem areas had not been covered.

The list of complaints goes on.

When Ainsworth and Sawyer wanted to monitor the emissions coming from the autoclave at Lone Tree to ensure permit compliance, they say they were told not to take readings, “following a see-no-evil approach.”

When potentially acid-generating material was found being discharged onto public land in December 2002, they say that measures to alleviate the obvious permit violation were deferred until a later date.

By February, the women were becoming frustrated that, according to the complaint: “Newmont was choosing to save money rather than comply with its permits.”

The two women weren’t trying to stir up trouble, they said. As it’s illegal knowingly to violate permits, the two were liable in part for any environmental infractions that could have been discovered.

The complaint alleges that episodes of environmental violations continued. The company didn’t make sure that its Lone Tree Mine acquired a permit to backfill its pit—as had been done at Twin Creeks, the complaint alleges. Also, water being discharged into the Humboldt River often had ammonia levels that exceeded the limits of the mine’s permits.

When Ainsworth continued to bring the latter issue up, she said she was told: “Compliance with permits is not a priority for Newmont.”

In April, the two women were fired. Newmont spokespeople said the two were laid off as part of an internal reorganization. But the women countered that if that were the case, they would have been placed on a list of individuals to be rehired, given that both women had exemplary work records and evaluations. In addition, Newmont hadn’t eliminated any environmental positions, instead it had added some.

The complaint states: “[The] terminations were intended to and did send a signal to employees regarding the consequences of speaking out in favor of environmental compliance and protection.”

Ainsworth and Sawyer felt they were clearly being punished for trying to protect the environment, they said during a recent phone conference with their Reno attorney Henry Egghart present.

“It’s part of that corporate pattern,” Egghart said. “[There are] a few people in positions of power who make bad decisions.”

“There’s a bonus system for maximizing profit,” Ainsworth said. “But no bonus for environmental compliance.”

To add insult to injury, Newmont answered media inquiries by characterizing the women as golddiggers just trying to make a buck by blackmailing the company with their allegations.

“Newmont has said we contacted them and threatened to go to agencies if they didn’t pay us,” Ainsworth said. “We never threatened, never once. We just did it.”

When state investigators from the NDEP arrived to check out the women’s complaints, they were held at bay for two months by the mining company, ostensibly in order to ask for a clear procedure during the questioning process. Since environmental workers are potentially liable for any findings of poor practices, the company said it wanted to protect employees’ rights.

The investigation didn’t turn up any new areas of concern, said Mary Korpi, a Newmont spokesman in Nevada.

“The majority of the allegations were found to be unsubstantiated,” Korpi said. “The ones that were identified as problems had already been reported, and we’re working with the NDEP to resolve those issues.”

The integrity of the findings may have been compromised by the two-month wait, according to a copy of the NDEP report obtained by the Associated Press.

“Although ultimately NDEP did interview all of the people we were interested in, the investigation was delayed by two months,” the report, as quoted by the AP, said. “Consequently, [we] lost the element of surprise, which is often times critical in an investigation.”

The two women refused their severance packages, the acceptance of which would have legally ended their right to fight the company.

The response to the Ainsworth-Sawyer complaint on the part of Newmont’s attorneys came in July. As noted, many allegations were denied. For example, with regard to the monitoring of autoclave emissions, “The defendant denies that its agents followed a ‘see-no-evil’ approach.” And while yes, the attorneys acknowledged that the mine’s permit does state a limit for emissions, it doesn’t specifically state monitoring requirements.

Compliance with environmental regulations and permits is something that Newmont takes seriously, Korpi said. “Compliance is our way of operation,” she said. “We always do everything in our power to comply with permit requirements.”

And Newmont employees are not reprimanded for pointing out environmental or safety issues.

“We strongly encourage our employees … to report these things immediately,” Korpi said. “We take both very, very seriously. Employees are told over and over again that if they see a problem, to report it immediately.”

The women weren’t fired, she insisted, they were laid-off due to a reorganization of the company after its merger with Normandy in 2002.

Why weren’t the two experienced women—both with clean work records and consistently positive job evaluations—put on the list for eligible rehire?

“I can’t answer that,” Korpi said.

She called the Ainsworth-Sawyer incident “old news.”

“We’re looking at more than a year ago,” she said.

Neither Egghart nor Korpi could predict when the case might come up for further review. It will likely be heard at the state court level.

Sawyer and the Ainsworths hope that an award from Newmont would send a message that it’s not OK to get rid of squeaky wheels. Receiving a settlement would be only fair, given that they’ve lost their livelihoods, Egghart added.

In the meantime, it’s hard to not become disheartened.

“I’ve applied for 300 to 500 jobs,” Sawyer said. “I’m not just sitting here twiddling my thumbs.”

“In the state of Nevada, you can be fired for any reason," Ainsworth said. "We were just trying to do our jobs."